Through some masters classes at Southern I've gotten to study global community development- a fancy term for missionary and nonprofit work with third world countries. And I've realized that while many Americans go with good intentions to help others, there are many dangerous misconceptions about what a missionary really is.
In general everyone expects missionaries to be super-saintly type of people, that leave home to go and make sacrifices and save lives. They are thought to be super-Christian, extra-evangelical, and extra-strong. They think of the missionary as the one "making a long term impact or difference." Many people think that missionaries have to leave home in order to serve others. Because we all know, flying around the world will instantly make you a better person and evangelist ;) (NOT)
And while there are so many amazing missionary heroes of the faith who left home to serve God and sacrifice- people like Hudson Taylor, David Livingston, and Amy Wilson Carmichael who have done amazing things in the name of God, who have helped so many people and been great Christian examples... Jesus calls us to be a missionary wherever we are living-- stateside or overseas. He asks us to be the salt of the earth; He calls us to be light- near or far away from home.
There is a great danger in idolizing missionaries and volunteers that serve overseas. There are too many misconceptions that are false. And there has been a great amount of danger caused by white people going on short term mission trips and sometimes even long term trips to try and save other people. When missionaries go to another country to "save them" they often can actually destroy the value and purpose of the native people. They can take away the need for people to work for themselves by giving people things for free and creating beggars. They can destroy local economy by giving things away for free. They can take away local jobs, hinder local culture, and hurt the self-esteem of the local people.
The truth is that many missionaries sent from the states are far less than qualified to go help. In general many young people go out to other countries pretending to "save and serve" when they expect to be taught the job they are doing. Missionaries from the states have a tendency to get prideful, are apt to complain, are prone to foreign illnesses and discouragement from bugs and mosquitos. They can't survive the culture shock for very long. And ultimately any missionary dependent on themselves will fail. And quite soon they will realize they can't save the world, and taken away from their home culture- they can barely survive themselves.
So if that's what missionaries seem to be nowadays, then what's the purpose in participating? Is all missions and international volunteering hurtful?
I believe missionaries and volunteers can learn, grow, and serve when they understand that they are just tools in the hands of God. Missionaries need to know that every person on this planet is extremely loved by the Lord and that every culture is extremely different and intrinsically valuable. Missionaries can deepen their trust in God when they follow God to places that are scary or uncomfortable. Although missionaries can not be super heroes, they can sacrifice their time to put others first.
Missionaries can learn what it means to be hungry.
Missionaries can see what it means to experience pain, and still be smiling.
Missionaries can be reminded to cherish the little things again.
Missionaries can see the power of Jesus in miracles and the way He saves.
Missionaries experience more sacrifice andf all deeper in love with Jesus.
Instead of going to a culture to save them, missionaries can say "save me" from an American lifestyle by learning what is really important.